Sunday 23 January 2011

Free-will, purpose, prophecy and providence in Tolkien


From The Quest of Erebor in Unfinished Tales by JRR Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien, published 1980)


"Listen to me, Thorin Oakenshield! [said Gandalf]. "If this hobbit goes with you, you will succeed. If not, you will fail. A foresight is on me, and I am warning you."


Looking hard at Gandalf, [Gimli] went on:

"But who wove the web? I do not think I have ever considered that before. Did you plan all this then, Gandalf? (...)

Gandalf did not answer at one.

He stood up and looked out of the window, west, seawards; and the sun was then setting, and a glow was in his face.

He stood so a long while silent.

But at last he turned to Gimli and said:

"I do not know the answer. For I have changed since those days, and I am no longer trammelled by the burden of Middle Earth as I was then.

"In those days I should have answered you with words like I used to Frodo, only last year in the spring.

"Only last year! But such measures are meaningless.

"In that far distant time I said to a small and frightened Hobbit: Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker, and you therefore were meant to bear it.

"And I might have added: and I was meant to guide you both to those points.

"To do that I used in my waking mind only such means as were allowed to me, doing what lay to my hand according to such reasons as I had." (...)

[Then Frodo said]: "I understand you a little better now, Gandalf, than I did before. Though I suppose that, whether meant or not, Bilbo might have refused to leave home, and so might I.

"You could not compel us. You were not even allowed to try." (...)

Gandalf said:

"It might all have gone very differently indeed.

The main attack was diverted southwards, it is true; and yet even so with his farstretched right hand Sauron could have done terrible harm in the North, while he defended Gondor, if King Brand and King Dáin had not stood in his path.

When you think of the great Battle of Pelennor, do not forget the Battle of Dale. Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador! There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might now only hope to return from the victory here to ruin and ash.

"But that has been averted – because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring not far from Bree.

"A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth."


The Lord of the Rings is permeated by a deep understanding of the Christian concept of how free-will is compatible with with purpose, prophecy and providence.

When such matters seem seem paradoxical, or merely muddled, this is well worth pondering.


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